Exercise is undeniably good for everyone, young and old alike. Being physically active improves your heart health and cardiovascular system, endurance, muscle mass, and body image, all while reducing stress, anxiety, and depression. Another bonus of exercise is that it uses energy and keeps you from storing as many calories as fat.
Why are today’s youth so inactive? Aren’t kids supposed to be the ones who run ahead and wait for us slowpokes to catch up? Adults may unconsciously be even more of the problem than being poor role models. How many times have you strapped your infant, toddler, or even preschooler into his or her stroller, effectively trapping your child into a sedentary state for your own convenience or to save time? Physical restraint of children can continue as they grow older as well, such as whenever we attempt to control their behavior by making them sit quietly for long periods of time, be it in school, in the car, or at home.
Not surprisingly, then, our kids’ new lifestyles are having devastating health consequences. Two decades ago, type 2 diabetes in adolescents and children was virtually unheard of, but now it is an epidemic, and teenagers are the most rapidly increasing group being diagnosed with diabetes. Why? The answer is, simplistically put, chips and chips: potato chips and computer chips. The rise in type 2 diabetes in American’s youth has paralleled their increased consumption of high calorie, low nutritional value foods like potato chips and French fries, along with the rise in sedentary, leisure-time pursuits like computer use and video games (now found even on cellular phones). At the same time, schools have cut back their P.E. programs, and fewer kids are participating in after-school sports and other active pursuits. The end result is a society full of sedentary, overweight youngsters.
The time to combat this rising tide of diabetic youth has arrived – it’s time to get our kids moving! Start by getting them as active as possible on a daily basis doing activities like playing outside and helping around the house. These activities are the equivalent of “unstructured” physical activities. In addition, walking is something everyone in the family can do. It is the most popular leisure-time physical activity among adults, followed by gardening and yard work (the latter two don’t rank high among kids, though!). When you walk at a normal speed (two to four miles per hour), walking expends about one calorie per kilogram (kg) of body weight (pounds divided by 2.2 equals kg) per kilometer (~0.6 miles), or for a 60 kg (132 lb) person about 100 calories per mile. About 2,000 steps a day equals a mile, and most overweight teens would expend well more than 100 extra calories per mile due to their heavier weights.
Additional walking can be added into your family’s daily routine more easily than you can imagine. For example, try taking a flight of steps with your kids instead of the elevator or an escalator, or walk up or down the escalator instead of standing while it’s moving. If going up steps is too hard, then start by walking down. Another good idea is to hide the remote to your TV so that your kids have to get up to change the channel. Also, make it a family rule that everyone has to walk around for five minutes after every half hour of being sedentary.
Additional suggestions to get your kids moving more:
# Whenever your kids have ten free minutes, encourage them to walk around instead of sitting down.
# Get your kids more involved in helping doing physical chores around the house, like cleaning, sweeping, mopping, vacuuming, and washing dishes.
# Make a game out of raking the leaves in the yard.
# Take your kids with you when shopping for groceries (as an added bonus, use the time to teach them about which foods are healthier to eat).
# Put on some music and have an impromptu family dance.
# Send your kids outside to kick or hit a ball around or throw a Frisbee.
# Get a basketball hoop to set up in your driveway and send your kids outside to play regularly, or walk to the nearest neighborhood school and use theirs.
# On nice days, take your kids to the nearest park to walk or play.
# Encourage your kids to take the dog out for a daily walk (it needs exercise, too!).
# Always have your kids walk around the house while talking on the telephone.
# Have your kids walk in place, dance, or simply move while watching TV – at least during the commercial breaks.
If motivation is your family’s biggest problem, do fun things like making a game out of trying to count how many steps they take. If nothing else, doing so may help your kids become more conscious of how active they are (or aren’t) and remember to add in more steps. You may want to consider picking up an inexpensive pedometer for them to use as additional motivation. Most kids will think they are fun to use!
Once you get your kids moving more, try adding in twenty minutes of aerobic exercise or recreational sports three to five days per week, such as biking, roller blading, kickball, and organized sports. Optimally, another two to three days per week they should engage in strength and flexibility activities like pull-ups, push-ups, martial arts, and rope climbing, as well as low-level leisure activities like swinging or miniature golf. Finally, have them cut down on all sedentary pursuits, including TV watching, computer and video games, and sitting for more than 30 minutes at a time.
Remember to ease into activities gradually. Walking more is a great way to start, but still start out slowly so your kids don’t get discouraged. Children seldom exert themselves solely for the health benefits of exercise so keep it fun by doing activities that they like! If physical activity becomes an integrated part of their lifestyle, it is more likely to be maintained long term. For motivation, try using a sticker chart to keep a visible account of daily activities, and use frequent reinforcement with tokens or (non-caloric) treats when goals are met. Most of all, be physically active yourself to set a good example!
For more information on preventing and controlling type 2 diabetes in kids, please consult my book, Diabetes-Free Kids.